Seven years after tracks were laid and more than a decade after policymakers proposed it, Washington D.C.’s new streetcar line finally carried passengers along H Street on Saturday. The long-delayed, 2.2-mile line has cost the city $200 million since its inception. While opening weekend was filled with fanfare and excitement, many Washingtonians also expressed doubt about the system’s viability and usefulness.
For starters, the Washington Post pointed out that the streetcar took 26 minutes to travel the line end to end, but it took 27 minutes to walk the same route, 19 minutes on a bus and just seven minutes in an Uber. Although the District notes that modern streetcars “operate at average speeds of 25 to 35 mph in mixed traffic on city streets,” the average speed of the D.C. streetcar is about 12 to 15 mph.
The Post noted that in a rush to complete the project, design shortcuts were taken that have compromised speed. The line runs so close to cars parked on the street that operators must anticipate drivers opening doors or trying to pull out from parking spaces. An opening day rider tweeted that his streetcar had pulled so close to the platform it lost a panel and had to pause for repairs.
Then there’s the line’s length. The streetcar departs from Union Station and runs down H Street to end at the Langston Golf Course, a distance of just 2.2 miles. A D.C. resident told the Post, “It’s very short. They could have used the money elsewhere, like developing more homes for the seniors and the homeless, and mental health for the youth.”
The line was promised as a vital transit link, but because of its short length, it’s unclear how vital it can be. Most of the passengers interviewed by WTOP this morning told a reporter they won’t be able to commute by streetcar alone, but will use it to replace a walking, bus or Metro leg of their journey — especially while service is free.
Service will be gratis for the first six months at least, which officials hope will be an incentive that builds ridership.
Early riders did express hope and excitement. One passenger’s reaction to the streetcar, as told by the Washington Post, was “Spectacular! … Great, great, great. Everything I hoped it would be. Now let’s hope this expands to a huge system to serve the public.”
Here, a few more reactions from early riders:
The streetcar is literally the dumbest thing D.C. has done in a long time.— Tiffany Lane (@Amancipation) February 19, 2016
Jen Kinney is a freelance writer and documentary photographer. Her work has also appeared in Philadelphia Magazine, High Country News online, and the Anchorage Press. She is currently a student of radio production at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies. See her work at jakinney.com.